Red or yellow sun: Cultural differences can color student’s viewpoint

Teacher Grace Lee, shown with one of her students, says her brother’s drawing of a red sun made his kindergarten teacher assume he could not follow directions.

Grace Lee teaches math at Riverdale High School in Clayton County and is a 2014 Teach For America corps member. She also serves as executive director of Kollaboration Atlanta, a nonprofit organization committed to empowering Asian Americans through the entertainment industry.

By Grace Lee

When my family first emigrated here from Korea in the 1990s, my brother was asked not to return to kindergarten after just a few days.  Mrs. B, my brother’s teacher, was having a difficult time communicating with him. Despite being teacher of the year, she could not get him to follow even the most basic instructions—“Stop running,” “Sit down,” “Don’t crawl underneath the table.” Moreover, when Mrs. B asked my brother to draw a snowman, he would produce two circles instead of three, and when he drew the sun, he would color it in with a red crayon.

Though Mrs. B did not realize it at first, the issue was just as much a gap in cultural understanding as it was a language barrier. In Korea, snowmen have only two parts, and the sun is drawn red. My mother was eventually able to explain this to Mrs. B after spending the next three months in my brother’s kindergarten class, the condition for allowing him to stay in school.

May marked Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and I thought about my brother’s experience. I was reminded of the importance of not only celebrating the diversity of our community, but considering how diversity enriches us as well as challenges us. My mother, who had taught high school in Korea, learned how to operate within the American education system as a parent, but she also learned it wasn’t a system set up to ensure every child, no matter their background, had access to a great education.

She studied the curriculum and spent time with my brother’s teacher, simultaneously preparing me for the following year when I would become a kindergartener. She continued to clarify cultural miscommunications at school and fought for our timely matriculation from ESL classes. My brother and I were very fortunate to have someone like her advocating for us in our early years of schooling, and her dedication was part of what inspired me to later join Teach For America.

Grace Lee

Clayton County math teacher Grace Lee

I’m now part of a nationwide movement, made up of passionate advocates working inside and outside of the classroom, as educators, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and more, striving toward an excellent education for all children. I’m passionate about this because despite being a strong force behind my educational achievement, my mom also expected my brother and me to take ownership of our own learning.

My parents worked long hours at our family’s dry cleaning business, and I felt the burden of navigating through academics on my own as early as elementary school. The weight of this responsibility became heavier as I grew older, and I don’t know what I would have done without the help of a high school guidance counselor who spent nearly every day with me going over my options for college, a topic my parents were passionate about but in which they did not have extensive experience.

It can be difficult for immigrant families to navigate unfamiliar systems. Without an advocate, students can struggle with self-confidence and face challenges in achieving academic goals. It’s important for them to have teachers who understand where they’re coming from, and in my own classroom, I seek to empower my students. In addition to our math lessons, we talk about why it’s important to respect one another and appreciate cultural differences.

Our personal stories may differ, but we’re able to relate to each other and the various challenges we face. I take pride in my Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and journey, and that resonates – not only with students from a similar background, but with each and every one of the young adults I teach. It’s crucial for them to see someone like me not only in a place of leadership, but comfortable in her own skin.

Since I started teaching, I’ve begun to reflect more and more on stories like the one about my brother and Mrs. B. I have no doubt this woman was a phenomenal teacher, but I can’t help wondering how much more of an impact she could have made on her students if she’d had an increased sense of cultural awareness.

I think it’s important teachers everywhere strive for greater cultural awareness in their classrooms, and that the diverse narratives of both teachers and students are recognized and celebrated.

 

Reader Comments 0

13 comments
Wascatlady
Wascatlady

This TFA teacher seems to have unusually little experience with teaching and teacher preparation. Of course, most teachers KNOW the things she writes about. I have taught with a few teachers from very limited backgrounds, but most teachers nowadays understand about the differences in student family cultures.  Certainly in ESOL courses, which many "regular" teachers take, these differences are discussed and highlighted.  Her brother's kindergarten teacher experience dated back to the 1990s, I believe, and teacher preparation has undergone some changes.


I am frequently surprised at how TFA teachers, smart people with limited preparation and experience in teaching, think they can set regularly-prepared and experienced teachers straight.

eulb
eulb

@Wascatlady I am generally in favor of the TFA concept -- young, smart, energetic college grads with strong understanding of the academic content and a personal commitment to spend 2 years teaching their hearts out in schools populated with underprivileged kids.  But if they enter a school with the attitude that they are superior to regularly-prepared, experienced teachers, they would certainly cause resentment and discord among all the teachers.  That ends up being bad for the students and the school. 

eulb
eulb

" ... it’s important teachers everywhere strive for greater cultural awareness in their classrooms ...."

I agree that awareness of cultural differences is needed, but I don't know how a teacher would go about striving for it.  The article doesn't really provide advice on that.  If a teacher has limited opportunities to travel and did not have a career in a multicultural setting prior to becoming a teacher, how would s/he become aware of the kinds of cultural differences that the author and Original Prof mentioned?  Is there a crash course in cultural differences available to teachers? 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@eulb There is an ESOL teacher prep class that addresses these kind of things. You can frequently take these courses through local RESAs.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@eulb 

I became aware of it by teaching students of many nationalities, noticing that my Asian students always seemed reticent in class, and asking a number of them together after class about this. "I've noticed that...please help me to understand so I can teach better...."

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

I was offered a scholarship in high school to be a teacher.  I had no intention of being a teacher at that time and turned it down.  I majored in theatre at Wesleyan College in Georgia, worked summer stock in Connecticut, and ended up in New York City for seven years, from age 20 - 27.  I worked at New York University (as well as attended NYU as a student for two years) in the Vice President's office, where I encountered the names of professors from all over the world.  Going from south Georgia at age 20, and returning to south Georgia from NYC at age 27 made all the difference in the type of teacher I would become.  I had had seven years of experiences in a multicultural environment of people from all over the world so that my perspective was very different than if I had been born in south Georgia, attended university in south Georgia and taught in a south Georgia school until I retired.


That life-altering experience of living in the Village of NYC for seven years, as well as having completed my undergraduate degree there, made me understand that I was born to be a teacher, but a teacher in which I understood myself and others with more depth than I possibly could have by having lived my whole life in south Georgia.  The thousands of students whom I taught directly or who were affected indirectly through my educational leadership positions in grades 1 - 12 profited immensely from the expanse of my consciousness brought about primarily through interacting with people from all over the world, and all cultures throughout the world in one of the largest cities in the world throughout the decade of my young adult years.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

I've posted this before, and will again now. There is another cultural difference between American and Asian-American students, both Pacific Rim and Indian subcontinent Asians, and it should hold true in K-12 as well as higher education. In the latter culture, it is a sign of disrespect to the teacher for the student to speak up in class in discussions. It is seen as the attempt to show greater knowledge than the teacher, to compete with him or her as authority in the classroom. 

Many Asian students have told me this (privately, after class). I would directly call on them to try to get them to participate like the other students (class discussion is good, right?), and this was explained to me. Cultural differences show up in many ways.

redweather
redweather

"Despite being teacher of the year, she could not get him to follow even the most basic instructions—“Stop running,” “Sit down,” “Don’t crawl underneath the table.” 

The comment above reads like a rather snide dig at his teacher. As if a "teacher of the year" is supposed to be able to control every form of misbehavior.

Also, is the writer of this piece claiming that a willingness (or not) to obey instructions is cultural? Are Korean school children allowed to run at will in the classroom? Do they get to decide if they will sit in a chair? Can they crawl under tables whenever they want to?

Coloring the sun red or yellow in one thing; disrupting the learning environment is another.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

What temporary TFA'ers do and think is irrelevant to education. Why don't they drive for Uber instead and tell them how to run their business?

Starik
Starik

Question: did the kid learn to draw a yellow sun and 3-circle snowmen, or did he insist on red and 2-circle?  Or did he learn to draw yellow suns in red at home and yellow at school?  One of the basic questions to be answered is whether we expect immigrants to assimilate, and how much?  Remember, Navajos were forbidden to speak Navajo at one point; or do we make the school teach in Navajo? 

Astropig
Astropig

@Starik


You raise a couple of very valid points. At what point does society and the school system say :"Celebrate your diversity,but assimilate and try to be tolerant of the world you are now in and not reach back for the world you left". Deliberately building walls between yourself and new surroundings doesn't really "empower" you-it can (taken to an extreme) isolate and marginalize you.


Just because of my business and family life, I know a lot of immigrants that have settled in and are here to stay.The happiest ones seem to be the families that recognize their heritage,but realize that they are in a different world with different customs and norms and stay focused on the reason they wanted to become Americans in the first place.